Review: Over the Garden Wall
Released by the Cartoon Network in 2014, Over the Garden Wall has since proven itself worthy of its rabid fan base: the miniseries is rightly considered a classic of “Halloween” films, and possibly contemporary animation in general.
The story of brothers Wirt and Greg lost in the Unknown is beautiful to look at, owing more painters of the American frontiers and farmlands than it does to modern trends. It is lush, the opposite of garish.
The story is initially a bit of picaresque, the boys’ quest to find their way home not nearly as important as the haunted people they meet and the haunting places they visit. But, in the fashion of “New” Doctor Who, all of the passing references, casual asides and side-glances at history and folklore pay off in a compete and compelling story. You will cry.
The overall feel of the work is most akin to browsing through an old photo album, but more carefully constructed. Over the Garden Wall borrows from early talkies, black & white cartoons, The Brother Grimm and Washington Irving… all the while working in shout-outs to Shriley Temple and Betty Boop. The these pieces are sharply arranged to create a world the feels cohesive and compelling.
A place we could all get lost in.
This is a world of story, that starts with Wirt and Greg as much in shadows as we are. This isn’t the last time we will pick up suddenly “there”- not quite in-media-res, more like the start of a dream: instant yet familiar. This is a world of characters, of archetypes. The first denizen of the Unknown we encounter is only ever known as The Woodcutter. He who is burdened by The Beast. An entire episode, pointedly titled “The Dark Lantern”, is all about characters who define themselves as such. The Tavern Keeper. The Baker. The Highwayman. What is Wirt? The Lover? or The Pilgrim? They’re like NPCs in a Roleplaying Game, aware of themselves only as sketches and how they relate to the Main Players.
We will find Mad Men, Witches (possibly Wicked), Wise Animals (one acting as the Guide, the Virgil to the duo’s Dante), Genius Loci… many of them half in one world, half in another. Frogs & Turtles (creatures of both water and land), Changlings (both human and Other), The Dancing Dead (clothed in reaped accessories), and Potatoes. .. simple green plants above, food buried under the dirt.
You may laugh, but something as humble as a tuber is revealed to have great import. But that is part of the point: the tales presented are by turn whimsical and melancholy. Putting your foot into a pumpkin is goofy, but can be haunting by the end of the journey. Light-hearted sleight of hand, but sleight of hand none-the-less.
The humbleness is perfectly echoed in the music of Over the Garden Wall. Simple piano pieces, minimal Americana, early Jazz, sinister opera… each song is as much a part of the story as the dialogue of the characters, in certain cases *more so*. Again the pieces are funny, and wistful, and moving. I found myself lost in song, in what they reveal and what they only hint at. “Potatoes and Molasses” will make you smile and tap your foot when you first hear it, but the dark reprise is more a funeral mass than Max Fleischer.
When all put together Over the Garden Wall is more than a “Halloween” film, or even a film about Autumn and the year’s end. It creates it’s own setting, it’s own genre… a sort of Phantamsagoric Americana wrapped in the aegis of a “kids” film.
Required watching, and listening.